Pastor endured similar tragedy in his own family

| October 26, 2011 | 0 Comments

AloneFather Vander Ploeg says that simply being present to people who are experiencing a loss can make a big difference

When Father Jon Vander Ploeg, pastor of St. Paul in Ham Lake, was notified that Teresa Gross had committed suicide on Nov. 1, 2010, he knew what the family was going through.

Five years before that, his family had endured a similar tragedy when his brother, Mark, committed suicide.

Mark “had mental illness for almost a decade, pretty severe schizophrenia and bipolar [disorder],” Father Vander Ploeg said. “It was very active the last six months. [My parents, Steve and Mary], were actually taking him into the hospital that day in order to get his meds redone. . . . He said he had to go to his car to get change. My mom looked out and he wasn’t there, and she ran and found him in the garage. He had shot himself.”

Father Vander Ploeg went to his family’s home in Grand Rapids, Mich., and preached at the funeral. Then, just a few months later, he had a suicide in his parish, after being the pastor at St. Paul for only a year. Like the Gross tragedy, this, too, involved a young teen.

Meeting with that family in the hospital showed him how helpful his own experience was because he “could relate to them on multiple levels,” he said. “They knew that I knew what they were going through.”

Father Vander Ploeg had to deal with two more suicides in his parish before helping the Gross family last year. He has met with them several times, but said the key to their healing process has been the friendships they have with other parishioners. The parish staff initiated things like bringing meals over, with parishioners and their friends and family continuing the practice for four months.

Ministering to families

Meeting practical needs is one important way people can help a family that’s suffering a loss. Father Vander Ploeg said another way folks can make a difference is by just being with the people who are suffering. In fact, that can help more than any words they might say.

“You just walk with the person and be with them,” he said. “My goal isn’t to make them feel better, it’s to simply be with them in the midst of the suffering they’re going through.”

One challenge for a priest in cases of suicide is the question of whether heaven is possible for those who have taken their own lives. Although the Catechism of the Catholic Church calls suicide “gravely contrary to the just love of self,” it also acknowledges the possibility of salvation for that person, saying “by ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance.” (See sidebar containing passages from the catechism on suicide.)

Father Vander Ploeg says it’s important to always follow what the church teaches, but at the same time, to be sensitive to the emotional state of the family members who have suffered a loss. What he tries to do is bring hope without dismissing the seriousness of the person’s act.

“In the midst of tragedy, Christ can enter into that and transform us in the midst of even the greatest sorrow,” he said. “Our hope is in him, not in us having everything go our way.”

Warning signs of suicide

According to suicide expert Dan Reidenberg, executive director of SAVE (Suicide Awareness Voices of Education), the following are warning signs that a person may be at risk for committing suicide. He recommends that those experiencing two or more of these signs be evaluated in a hospital as soon as possible.

  • Talking about wanting to die or to kill oneself
  • Looking for a way to kill oneself, such as searching online or buying a gun
  • Talking about feeling hopeless or having no reason to live
  • Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain
  • Talking about being a burden to others
  • Increasing use of alcohol or drugs
  • Acting anxious or agitated; behaving recklessly
  • Sleeping too little or too much
  • Withdrawing or feeling isolated
  • Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
  • Displaying extreme mood swings

Facts and stats

  • Suicide takes the lives of nearly 30,000 Americans every year.
  • Between 1952 and 1995, suicide in young adults nearly tripled.
  • For young people 15-24 years old, suicide is the third leading cause of death.
  • More than half of all suicides are completed with a firearm.
  • Suicide rates among the elderly are highest for those who are divorced or widowed.
  • 80 percent of people that seek treatment for depression are treated successfully.
  • There are an estimated eight to 25 attempted suicides to one completion.
  • Substance abuse is a risk factor for suicide.
  • The strongest risk factor for suicide is depression.


What does the church teach?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church has four passages that specifically address suicide. They are as follows:

2280: Everyone is responsible for his life before God who has given it to him. It is God who remains the sovereign Master of life. We are obliged to accept life gratefully and preserve it for his honor and the salvation of our souls. We are stewards, not owners, of the life God has entrusted to us. It is not ours to dispose of.

2281: Suicide contradicts the natural inclination of the human being to preserve and perpetuate his life. It is gravely contrary to the just love of self. It likewise offends love of neighbor because it unjustly breaks the ties of solidarity with family, nation, and other human societies to which we continue to have obligations. Suicide is contrary to love for the living God.

2282: If suicide is committed with the intention of setting an example, especially to the young, it also takes on the gravity of scandal. Voluntary co-operation in suicide is contrary to the moral law. Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide.

2283: We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance. The Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives.


As the first anniversary of their daughter’s suicide approaches, local couple feels called to help other families

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